The best children’s books of the year and the best Christmas stories
Sara Keating selects the best books for the smallest stockings
Curl up by the fire with a good book, or a couple dozen good books, this Christmas. Photograph: iStock
Picture Books (0-5)
Counting Creatures, Julia Donaldson and Sharon King-Chai (Two Hoots, £14.99) The ubiquitous Julia Donaldson’s latest book may fall under the radar, so thoroughly does it eschew her trademark style. This gently rhyming counting primer also serves as an introduction to baby animals: from cubs to caterpillars, leverets to lambs. The sumptuous die-cut illustrations from Sharon King-Chai layer the lift-the-flap reveals in clever, deceiving places that will keep young listeners engaged throughout.
The One with the Waggly Tail, Sarah Webb and Steve Simpson (O’Brien Press, €21.99) There is nothing more valuable on a young reader’s bookshelf than an anthology of nursery rhymes, and Sarah Webb has collected some Irish favourites in this beautifully produced book. Steve Simpson’s bold-shaped, bright-coloured illustrations provide a visual narrative for even the most unusual and obscure rhymes. A book to treasure for years to come.
You Choose: Fairytales, Pippa Goodhart and Nick Sharratt (Puffin, £12.99) Children get to be the authors of their own tales in this collaboration between Pippa Goodhart and Nick Sharratt. What kind of hero would you like to be? What faraway land tickles your adventurous fancy? Will you have a sidekick? A special talent? WIll you have a happy ending? There are endless options for endless re-reading fun.
Early Readers (6+)
A Fairytale Revolution (Vintage Classic, £12.99) These new standalone versions of traditional classics come with the sophisticated stamp that the literary parent will approve of. In Cinderella Liberator, essayist Rebecca Solnit puts her stamp on the Aschenputel tale, encouraging an appreciation of different kinds of beauty and independence of ambition. In Hansel and Greta, fabulist Jeanette Winterson allows Greta (who has Thunberg idealism) to narrate the troubled siblings’ tale with accessible frankness, as their stepmother Greedyguts conspires against their future.
Novelist Kamila Shamsie turns Hans Christian Andersen’s Ugly Duckling into a “wrong wrong bill-faced rain cloud-feathered flying diving swimming creature” whose journey towards self-love takes on epic proportions, while Malorie Blackman brings a dark and mature aspect to the collection with Blueblood, the story of newlyweds Nia and Marcus. Classic silhouette illustration – from Arthur Rackham and contemporary Laura Barrett – adds an extra everywoman feel to the stories.
Dragon Mountain (Simon and Schuster, £6.99) Katie and Kevin Tsang, the authors behind the brilliant Sam Wu books, have turned their talents towards mythology in their new fantasy series, Dragon Mountain, which sees champion surfer Billy Chan sent to his ancestral home to learn Mandarin and his cultural heritage. Instead, he and a gang of friends find themselves drawn deep into the ancient past, where four warrior dragons need rescuing. The Tsangs expertly blend mystical adventure with real life concerns in a page-turning book of short chapters that should be perfectly manageable for those new to chapter books.
Irish Fairy Tales, Myths and Legends (Scholastic Classics, £5.99) Kieran Fanning has gathered together some famous fables and lesser-known legends from Irish culture in this compendium. In concise, sharply-told narratives we read of vain Labhraidh Loinseagh’s humiliation, greedy King Corc’s comeuppance, while the mythological cycles of Ulster and the Fenians get their telling too. This is a great read-aloud option for parents, but the bite-sized stories will give a great sense of accomplishment to the newly independent reader.
Zombierella, Joseph Cohelo (Walker Books, £8.99) Fairytales Go Bad in this series from Walker Books. In the first instalment, Cinderella comes back to teach her stepsisters a lesson as a zombie. Despite being undead, she STILL manages to get the prince to fall in love with her. Coehlo’s easy rhyming verse makes the story skip along while black and white illustrations from Freya Hartas complete the gently gothic picture.
Confident Readers (8-11)
The Monsters of Rookhaven, Pádraig Kenny “Humans have a terrible habit of making a mess of things”, thinks Mirabelle, mistress of Rookhaven, when two of that very same species step through a “great big rip in the air” and enter the garden of her specially protected universe. Rookhaven, you see, is a world where monsters like Mirabelle live.
This is Pádraig Kenny’s third book and his best yet. By presenting his monstrous heroine from her own perspective, he creates a brilliantly ordinary and complex picture of difference and tolerance. Rookhaven is a riot of gothic detail, while there are so many memorable inhabitants it is hard to choose which ones to celebrate most – Odd, perhaps, who has a portable portal that allows him to slip between worlds, or Aunt Eliza, who takes physical shape only when summoned, or the dangerous Piglet, who is not quite as fierce as the reader might fear. From the silhouette portraits of the family tree to the atmospheric details scattered throughout the pages, Edward Bettison’s illustrations provide an extra edge to this fantastic, supernatural tale.
The Fowl Twins: Deny All Charges, Eoin Colfer (Harper Collins, £12.99) If your young bookworm has not yet discovered Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl books, go forth and invest in the whole series. If they have, the latest instalment of his sequel series will surely be number one on their Christmas list. In Deny All Charges the troublesome Fowl twins are grounded, but the house arrest comes to a halt when Myles is abducted and Beckett must go and rescue him. As ever, Colfer offers page-turning adventure with a side of ridiculous fun.
The Super Miraculous Journey of Freddie Yates, Jenny Pearson (Usbourne, €8.99) It is the summer holidays and the spectacularly unsuper schoolboy Freddie Yates needs a miracle. His mum is dead, his father is poorly and two months of unstructured chaos awaits him. Luckily, he has two very good friends to enliven the dull days, which are soon filled with madcap mayhem, as they head across the country searching for Freddie’s biological dad. There are fart jokes and exploding toilets, onion-eating escapades and troublesome sheep, but it is the story of friendship that holds this debut from Jenny Pearson – and Freddie – together.
The Ickabog, JK Rowling (Scholastic, £20) It has been a controversial year for the author, but The Ickabog reminds us what a great storyteller JK Rowling is. In this original fairytale the fearsome Ickabog who has been terrorising the kingdom of Cornucopia turns out not to be as scary as everyone thought. Featuring illustrations from young readers around the world, including an Irish 8-year-old, this is a beautiful production whose profits go to a good cause. Look out for a new edition of Quidditch Through the Ages illustrated by Emily Gravett (Bloomsbury, £25) as well.
Christmas Classics Old and New
Charitable Christmas Tales Bring some of Ireland’s most mellifluous voices into your home with Bedtime Stories of Christmas for Threshold, an audio initiative from the homeless charity, which has created a series of bedtime stories to see you through the Twelve Days of Christmas. Owen Roe reads Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, as authentic a rendering as you will find, while other contributors include Hozier, Pauline McLynn and Tom Vaughan Lawlor, reading classic as well as original Christmas tales. You can access the stories for €10 for the month. threshold.ie
If your young readers prefer to look at books rather than listen to them, last year’s How Will Santa Find Us? by Shane O’Brien and Stephen Rogers, featuring a mosaic of pictures from some of Ireland’s top illustrators, is worth seeking out. The profits go to charity, yes, but the heartwarming story, which narrates the fortune of a homeless family at Christmas time, serves as a gentle reminder to appreciate one’s own good fortune.
The Twelve Days of Christmas or Grandma is Overly Generous (Macmillan, £9.99) Alex T Smith reinvents the traditional yuletide carol in this busy illustrated version for 3+. Miss Eloise Jingle is one lucky girl. Her Grandma has given her 12 presents to celebrate the season: a partridge in a pear tree, two turtle doves, three french hens, four calling birds and five gold rings. But wait a minute: seven squirrels a-snorkelling? Eleven penguins parping? As Eloise’s acquisitions start to overwhelm her, hilarity breaks out. Featuring Smith’s trademark attention to detail, this is a beautiful book to unwrap.
Christmas on Ebeneezer Street, Catherine Doyle (Puffin, £12.99) Charles Dickens’s seminal Victorian story gets a modern makeover in this touching tale of family healing. When a young boy finds a magic snow globe in a strange pop-up curiosity shop, George and his grieving father travel back to the past and into the future, on a quest to come to terms with the death of George’s mother three seasons past. A gorgeous hardcover production and Doyle’s atmospheric rendering of this original seasonal tale. An instant Christmas classic.
Ye Olde Yuletide Classics
If you are looking for a good version of Dickens’s perennial favourite, PJ Lynch’s ghostly illustrations (Walker Books, £12.99) is one of the best editions of A Christmas Carol you will find. Lynch also provides the illustrations for another Christmas favourite, Susan Wojciechowski’s The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey (Walker, £6.99), which carries a message of hope and redemption that resonates deeply at this time of year. JRR Tolkein’s heartwarming and imaginative Letters from Father Christmas has been republished in sumptuous form to mark its centenary (HarperCollins, £20).
Clement Clarke Moore’s narrative poem The Night Before Christmas exists in numerous stylish editions, none more exquisite than Arthur Rackham’s, a collector’s item I am lucky enough to own. Contemporary readers will have to settle for Charles Santore’s traditional version (Applesauce Press, £9.99). Meanwhile, Carol Ann Duffy’s modern version of Another Night Before Christmas (Picador, £7.99) is a brilliant update packaged in a pocket-sized paper-cut version by Rob Ryan. The Night Before the Night Before Christmas (Golden Books, £11.99) by Richard Scarry subverts the seasonal favourite with a bit of inspired disaster. Scarry’s books remain unmatched for their illustrative detail – pickle-cars, banana-mobiles, and dozens of miniature and man-sized diggers – a great themed talkabout book for toddlers.